Does walking build muscle?

An exercise physiologist answers the question: “Does walking build muscle?”

Does walking build muscle? Image shows woman walking and looking at fitness tracker on wrist
(Image credit: Getty)

When you’re new to fitness, walking is one of the best beginner-friendly workouts, but does walking build muscle?

We all know that there are many physical and mental health benefits of walking, including strengthening the heart and lungs, improving aerobic fitness, decreasing blood pressure, reducing the risk of certain lifestyle diseases, decreasing stress, and improving mood. 

You also need little more than a good pair of walking shoes to get started. But, often missing in the frequently-cited benefits of walking is whether walking can build muscle.

To learn more about whether it is possible to build muscle walking, and how to do so, we spoke with Elizabeth Kemp, an ACSM-certified exercise physiologist. Kemp explains that walking is not the best form of exercise for building muscle, but that it’s possible to strengthen your legs by adding walking tasks such as climbing stairs, walking at an incline, or walking at a faster pace into your routine. 

Elizabeth Kemp
Elizabeth Kemp

Elizabeth Kemp, MS, MHL, ACSM- CEP is the Director of Research and Customer Outcomes at Vivo, an interactive fitness company for older adults. Kemp is an American College of Sports Medicine-certified clinical exercise physiologist, with over 15 years experience working with older adults in research and clinical settings. She received both her Masters of Science in Health and Exercise Science and her Masters in Translational Science from Wake Forest University. 

Does walking build muscle?

While it’s possible to build some amount of muscle with walking, Kemp says walking isn’t known to be a particularly effective form of exercise for such a purpose.

“Walking will build some lower-body muscles but walking primarily builds the slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are muscle fibers mostly used for endurance activities,” explains Kemp. “Overall, walking alone won’t trigger significant muscle growth.”

Kemp explains that walking is considered to be a low-impact, aerobic exercise. She says that strength training, circuit training, and Pilates are more effective forms of exercise to build muscle. 

“Better exercises for building muscle are resistance exercises where [you are] using your muscles against some form of resistance, such as weights, resistance bands, or body weight against gravity,” she shares. “Examples of these exercises would be pushups, planks, squats, or lunges. These exercises address major muscle groups that we use in our everyday life.”

Two people enjoying a walk in a park

(Image credit: Getty Images)

But before you abandon your walking workouts altogether, Kemp says there are plenty of benefits of walking for exercise.

“The primary benefit of walking is that it is a form of aerobic exercise that builds your heart muscle by enhancing your body’s use of oxygen. Think about how often you walk. You walk to move around your home, walk to the mailbox or around the grocery store,” explains Kemp. “Walking is one of the most common forms of aerobic exercise and allows us to participate in activities of daily living.”

Kemp adds that, while walking is considered an aerobic exercise, along with exercises such as swimming, cycling, and the elliptical machine, it’s also important to include anaerobic exercise into your routine.

“Anaerobic exercise involves short, fast, intense bouts of exercise (think HIIT training or jumping rope). This type of exercise also improves your cardiovascular health as well as builds muscle and promotes bone health,” she shared. “Both aerobic and anaerobic exercises are important to your health and both should be included in a well-rounded exercise routine.”

What muscles does walking work?

Although walking isn’t necessarily the most effective type of exercise for building muscle, walking still works numerous lower-body muscles, which can improve the muscular strength and endurance in these key muscles.

“Walking primarily works the quadriceps and hamstrings (front and back of the thigh, respectively), calf muscles, and the hip adductors (inner thigh muscles),” describes Kemp. 

“Other muscles involved in walking are your glutes, tibialis anterior (front of your shin) that helps lift your toes off the ground, erector spinae (back muscles), and the abdominal muscles that help stabilize your trunk.”

Plus, walking can help engage some of the often-overlooked muscles, such as the pelvic floor muscles, which support the pelvic organs and help control bowel and bladder function.

According to Kemp: “Pelvic floor muscles are engaged throughout walking and the level of activation increases further as walking speed increases and we move from walking to jogging to running.”

How can you increase muscle-building while walking?

Kemp says there are a few ways to increase the muscle-building effects of your walking workouts.

“To increase muscle building when walking, consider adding in a walking task such as stair climbing because navigating stairs requires considerable demand on your lower-body muscles,” she suggests. 

“Likewise, walking on an incline increases muscle activation to help build strength. Hills, or incline walking, not only will strengthen your cardiovascular system but will also strengthen your calves, hamstrings, ankles, and glutes.”

Man walking next to river

(Image credit: Getty)

Another option to help build muscle while walking – while simultaneously increasing the cardiovascular demand (further strengthening the heart and burning more calories) – is to wear a weighted vest. The added weight requires your heart and muscles to work that much harder to transport your body from point A to point B.

Finally, Kemp says that adding speed and directional changes while you walk may further help to build muscles while walking. “This may look like adding in 20 to 30 seconds of fast walking or intervals of backwards walking or side steps,” she suggests. “These types of movements also help to challenge your coordination and balance.”

What are better exercises for muscle-building?

The American College of Sports Medicine and the British Heart Foundation recommend getting 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week (which can include your walking workouts) as well as two to three days of muscle strengthening workouts per week that focus on all major muscle groups. 

“While you may be able to build some muscle while walking, the best way to build muscle is through resistance or strength training exercises,” advises Kemp. “For optimal muscle strength, add in strength training exercises that specifically load muscles to cause muscle growth. Examples of strength training exercises would be lunges, squats, pushups, or planks. These exercises could be added into a walk to optimize muscle stimulation.”

Kemp says that incorporating strength training into your fitness routine is especially important as we age, because we start to naturally lose muscle mass and strength after the age of 30 or so. 

“One key way to prevent the loss of muscle mass is to perform strength training exercises. If you aren’t sure where to start with an exercise program, it’s important to find a personal trainer or exercise professional to guide you,” advises Kemp. 

So, certainly don’t remove walking from your workout routine just because it isn’t the best form of exercise for building muscle. Rather, make sure you also incorporate some strength training to round out your fitness program. 

Amber Sayer

Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, Amber likes running, cycling, cooking, spending time outside, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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